USDA Food and Nutrition Services Embarks on Landmark Study

      Posted On: January 18, 2012

By Natalie Roper, FMC Research & Education Intern

Fifteen years ago, there were 643 out of 2,410 farmers markets authorized to accept SNAP benefits, then known as food stamps.  At that point, all states had completed the mandatory transition to EBT, streamlining the program and simplifying the process for participants.  As the number of farmers markets grew, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) recognized that accessibility to markets’ fresh, nutritious foods was important for their clients, though a variety of barriers were holding back more markets from becoming SNAP authorized and thereby keeping SNAP redemptions at farmers markets low.

As of September 30th, 2011, 2,445 out of more than 7,100 markets nationwide are authorized SNAP retailers (see SNAP Redemptions at Farmers Markets Exceed $11 Million in 2011).  In this new landscape, FNS is acting upon the need to better understand how nutrition assistance works in farmers markets, and identify the spectrum of barriers (and their potential solutions) on the market, farmer, and consumer sides.  Building on the data currently available from the 2006 Farmers Market Manager Survey conducted by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, FNS is undertaking a series of studies to better understand modern farmers markets as an industry and increase FNS program access in farmers markets nationwide.  What follows are the three Tasks, or Phases, of this research.

Phase I

Through case studies and a national survey of farmers market managers and direct marketing farmers, the first phase strives to explore the characteristics of farmers markets both participating and not participating in SNAP, including those which are technically authorized to accept SNAP but did not redeem any benefits in 2011. The study evaluates which markets are participating  in nutrition assistance programs and why. This unprecedented survey, launched on January 3rd, seeks responses from 3,000 randomly selected farmers market managers and direct marketing farmers around the nation. FMC encourages anyone who has received one of these surveys to take the time to fill it out thoughtfully, either on the paper version received through the mail or through this link.  According to Kelly Kinnison, PhD, Social Science Research Analyst at the USDA FNS Office of Research and Analysis, the information gleaned from this comprehensive survey “will be vital to better understanding the characteristics, logistics, opportunities, and challenges of operating federal nutrition programs at farmers markets.”

This first phase explores the obstacles on the supply side of the equation–what are the logistics, motivations and challenges of farmers markets accepting SNAP, and are their certain market governance or operations characteristics that correlate with higher degrees of success in implementing SNAP?

Phase 2

The second phase strives to describe the shopping patterns of both SNAP participants redeeming benefits at farmers markets and those who don’t—the barriers on the demand side. Through surveys and focus groups with SNAP clients, this phase will begin to fill the void of information and research on why many SNAP households do not redeem their benefits at farmers markets and how these barriers can be addressed. USDA is currently seeking comments on this phase, soliciting input on the proposed collection of information, methodology, and ways to make data collection easier on the respondents.  More information about the proposed SNAP participant research, and the comment period, is available in the Federal Register until February 21, 2012.  You are the ones on the ground, doing this work every day. FNS is working hard to make this study comprehensive, accurate, and convenient for respondents, but hearing from practitioners in the field is critical to ensuring that all the right questions get asked and answered.

Phase 3

In an effort to continue to make fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible, many markets around the country have created partnerships with community and national organizations to provide financial incentives to encourage SNAP customers to redeem their benefits at their farmers market. The third phase of this study seeks to research the structure, operation, and mission of these incentive-sponsoring organizations, to further understand how these varying incentive arrangements are designed, operated, and evaluated.  Researchers will be conducting in depth-interviews with a wide variety of organizations who provide funding for incentive programs, followed by an analysis of the effectiveness of these programs using both existing SNAP participant redemption data and incentive organization  program evaluation data. This phase, too, is already underway, as the first meeting of the Technical Working Group was hosted in Rockville, Maryland on December 1st. The working group consists of members representing all different parts of the country including, Alyson Abrami from the New York City Health Department’s Health Bucks Program, Rachel Chadderdon from the Fair Food Network, Anna Curtin from the Portland Farmers Market, and Jezra Thompson from Roots of Change.  Though it does not fund or operate financial incentive programs, the Farmers Market Coalition is also playing an advisory role on the Technical Working Group.

According to Eric Williams, PhD, the Social Science Research Analyst leading this phase, this research is critical for FNS to  create a more comprehensive picture of SNAP redemptions at farmers markets and the potential areas for growth. “We anticipate that these results will inform FNS as to how organizations operate incentive programs and make decisions about funding them.  This will help FNS work with our partners to improve their programs, making them more effective in delivering healthy foods to SNAP clients.”